Co. to beef up publishing biz, considers AOL music merger

BERLIN — Bertelsmann’s $164 million sale of its minority stake in online bookstore Barnes& is the latest sign that the German media giant is rearranging its priorities.

The company said Wednesday it will beef up its book publishing business and hinted that it was indeed considering a merger with AOL Time Warner regarding the companies’ music divisions.

The sale of Barnes& back to Barnes & Noble closed the chapter on the group’s e-commerce endeavors, championed by former topper Thomas Middelhoff.

Bertelsmann, the world’s fifth biggest media company, whose wide-ranging assets include TV, publishing and music holdings, has put the brakes on acquisitions since Middelhoff was forced out last year.

Bertelsmann CEO Gunter Thielen said the $1.15 billion sale of the group’s BertelsmannSpringer science and trade publishing unit to British-based private equity firms Cinven and Candover had to be wrapped up before it embarked on major acquisitions. Bertelsmann is awaiting U.S. regulatory approval of the deal.

Thielen said he also wanted to boost the position of BMG, the smallest of the world’s big five music groups, adding that “We feel if we stay alone we are too small.”

As for the global advertising slump which has wracked the company’s TV and magazine publishing units, RTL and Gruner + Jahr, the chief exec was optimistic, saying the decline had likely reached bottom and that he expected a turnaround in 2004.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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